MERS Report for 2018

[Initial blog is from December 18th, 2018.
Update February 18, 2019 =  numbers are now 95 for Northern Vancouver Island; 86 for our core study area; 86 for the Campbell River / Comox area of which 23 have also been sighted around NE Vancouver Island. These updates are marked in red text below. Note too that our colleagues further to the south report at least 266 individuals documented in the Salish Sea at some time in 2018. A significant number of these are Humpbacks we too have documented further to the north.]

Another year (almost) over and what have we done?

Please find our report below for Humpback Whale numbers in our study area and a summary of the work achieved in 2018.

First, for clarity, we are not reporting on the full number of Humpback Whales estimated to feed in British Columbia marine waters.. The best estimate for that dates back to research by Ford et al which concluded that, in 2006, the  abundance for Humpback Whales in British Columbia waters was 2,145 whales.  This estimate does not include 1st year calves. There will be an updated estimate as a result of the 2018 Pacific Region International Survey of Marine Megafauna (PRISMM). 

How many Humpbacks did there used to be off our coast? As you can imagine, there is poor data for this as no one was studying whales as individuals prior to the early 1970s. The estimate is that a minimum of 4,000 Humpback Whales existed just off the west coast of Vancouver Island in 1905. Legal whaling for Humpbacks ended by international agreement in 1966 and it is estimated that, by the 1970s, there were only ~1,400 Humpbacks in the WHOLE North Pacific Ocean i.e. not just off our coast.

The area for which we are reporting is from the upper Strait of Georgia to northern Vancouver Island. To date, our team at the Marine Education and Research Society has identified 158 individuals who were in that area at some time in 2018 (this number may increase since we still have some data to process). 

The sub-area for which we have the longest dataset is northeastern Vancouver Island (upper Johnstone Strait, Queen Charlotte Strait and the inlets of the Broughton Archipelago). The graph below shows how sudden the increase in Humpbacks has been. Numbers have increased from just 7 individuals documented in this area in all of 2003, to identifying 86 in 2018. Note too how many of the whales are returnees to the area each year (compare the purple bar in the graph to the red bar). This indicates how strong the site fidelity of Humpbacks is. They generally return to the same area(s) to feed year upon year. 

Number of photo-identified Humpback Whales sighted off Northeastern Vancouver Island – specifically for upper Johnstone Strait, Queen Charlotte Strait and the inlets of the Broughton Archipelago. Data pre 2000 via Alexandra Morton. Note that we use both dorsal fins and the underside of the whales’ tails to determine ID. MERS Humpback Catalogue available at this link

For the Campbell River / Comox area, we catalogued 86 individuals that were there at some point in 2018.  Of this number, 
23 were also sighted around 
NE Vancouver Island.

We emphasize how this work would not be possible were it not for the contribution of photos from naturalists, boaters and others who care. The photos, together with the location of sightings, not only aid our Humpback Whale population studies but also help in understanding how the whales use the area. 

With the number of Humpbacks so predictably being around central to northern Vancouver Island, it is essential that boaters are aware of how to avoid collision and what to do (and not to do) if entanglement is witnessed. Humpback Whales are much more unpredictable than the Orca many boaters are accustomed too. Please see

Note that our research, conducted in collaboration with Fisheries and Oceans Canada, shows that approximately 50% of the Humpbacks in BC waters have scarring from an entanglement. This indicates how widespread a risk entanglement is but does of course not allow us to know how many whales become entangled and die since dead whales usually sink to the bottom of the ocean.

It is even more difficult therefore to know how often whales die from injuries related to boat collision. It is now thankfully the law that collisions and entanglements must be reported.

We have included a photo at the end of this blog showing a whale injured as a result of a boat collision. This is a graphic image. It is easily understood how such collisions with whales are also a human safety issue.

Please see below for a summary of our further efforts to understand and reduce threats to whales for 2018. This has been achieved with less than three full-time paid positions. Such efficiency is possible as a result of extensive volunteer efforts from our team and a broad community of support. Thanks to all who made this possible. 

Highlights of work achieved by MERS in 2018:

  • 2,000+ data entries for sightings of Humpbacks;
  • 170 hours spent monitoring whales during commercial fisheries in case there is an entanglement and in order to better understand the risk;
  • 30 additionalSee a Blow? Go Slow!” signs for strategic positioning on British Columbia’s coast (many more signs are needed, possible to sponsor via this link);
  • 22 presentations on our research and reducing risks to whales, reaching more than 1,550 people from coastal BC; 
  • Publishing our research on trap-feeding in Marine Mammal Science;
  • Publishing on minke whale acoustics in Bioacoustics;
  • Training more than 95 people at two Marine Naturalist Workshops to enhance the calibre of conservation information provided on our coast;
  • Continued work to understand the proportion of humpbacks that have been entangled in BC, in partnership with Fisheries and Oceans Canada;
  • Collaborating with colleagues also documenting Humpbacks off the coast of British Columbia to update the BC province-wide Humpback catalogue; and
  • Co-hosting an entanglement workshop with the Coastal Ocean Research Institute / Ocean WiseFisheries and Oceans Canada and Sealife Response Rehabilitation and Research to help participants learn how to report, document and help assess entangled whales.

Warning – graphic image alert.
The photo below is of Raza the Humpback Whale who is often around the Discovery Islands during the feeding season. The photo is from October 20th, 2018 in Calm Channel (between Sonora and Stuart Islands) with the propeller scars appearing to be recent. It is thanks to the observations of Ryan Stewart that the injury was noted, documented and reported. Presumably no boater wants to put themselves and whales at risk but too many are still unaware of how the increase in Humpbacks off our coast necessitates increased knowledge and modified boater behaviour. Every boater should have the Incident Reporting Line number 1-800-465-4336 programmed into their phones to report incidents of concern. All should be familiar with the further content at

We have shared Raza’s reality in the hopes that this image is compelling for more boaters to become aware.

Photos from one of the known vessel strike incidents in 2018.

Click here for examples of the severity of  human injuries and material damage resulting from collisions with Humpback Whales. 


Ford J.K.B., Rambeau A.L., Abernethy R.M., Boogaards M.D., Nichol L.M., and Spaven L.D. 2009. An Assessment of the Potential for Recovery of Humpback Whales off the Pacific Coast of Canada. DFO Can. Sci. Advis. Sec. Res. Doc. 2009/015. iv + 33 p.

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